Whitworth University Fall Convocation Address 2008
Sept. 3, 2008
Did you know there is a book in the Bible that never mentions God, prayer, or worship; a book that records not a single miracle; a book that finds people weeping and wailing? It's a book about the Seattle Mariners. No, it isn't. It's a book that records the story of a strong, smart and loyal woman named Esther.
This year, we faculty and staff members are asking how our culture, our institutional history, and our own personal histories have distorted the way we look at gender. Consciously and subconsciously, we have restricted opportunities for women, and that has left us all diminished. We hope to see through eyes that respect differences but demand equality.
In that spirit, I've chosen to look at the story of Esther, one of scripture's great heroes. I'm drawn to the life of Esther precisely because there aren't any big miracles. It's not that I don't believe in miracles. I do. I love watching Charlton Heston split the Red Sea. And how great is the miracle where Jesus healed a blind beggar by putting spit and dirt on his eyes? If Jesus can use spit and dirt, he can probably use you and me. And that's definitely a miracle, when you think about it. But flashy miracles don't happen for most of us, even when we ask. It's probably better that they don't.
Last December I was facing a big decision. After much prayer, I had reached a point where I knew I would do whatever God wanted me to do. So I told that to God. Out loud. I was alone, at our cabin, saying to God out loud, "You know I mean it. You know I will do anything you want. Just tell me." Now the next part I'm embarrassed to tell you, but it makes my point. As I was imploring God for direction, I happened to notice the telephone. (This is a vivid memory.) I smiled. I couldn't help myself. I prayed, out loud, "Lord, you know you can do it, just give me a call." I hope God was smiling too. And then do you know what happened? Nothing. No call. There never is. Apparently, God seems to think the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sent to dwell within us, is better than a telephone to guide us through the everyday circumstances of life.
So here's the story of an Israelite named Esther.
At roughly the same time as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were thinking great thoughts in the Greek Isles, the people of Israel were languishing in Persia. As they suffered from oppression and exile, life held little joy. They couldn't even sing their songs. The Psalmist lamented,
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors…demanded songs of joy; they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
But how can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
In Esther's day, the king of Persia was a man named Xerxes. Suffering no shortage of pride, he hosted a six-month celebration that showcased all of his riches. The extravaganza was concluded with a week-long banquet in the palace garden. For the event, Xerxes' ordered an open bar – a really open bar. Evidently, this party was mostly for guys because while it was going on, Xerxes' wife, Queen Vashti, threw a bash inside the palace for the women.
By the seventh day, King Xerxes' liver must have been working harder than his brain. He told his eunuchs to fetch Queen Vashti, just so he could parade her beauty before all of his drunken guests. Well, she just flat-out refused, and this threw the king into a rage. Of course, all of his nobles told him not to let Vashti get away with this disobedience or they too would all be hearing no from their wives. So the king decided to get a new queen.
Xerxes held a year-long beauty pageant, and Esther was chosen to be the queen. It's clear from the story that Xerxes wasn't looking for brains and personality. He was just looking for looks. So he skipped the interview part of the beauty pageant and never discovered that Esther was Jewish. Actually, Esther had been adopted by her older cousin, Mordecai, who had warned her not to reveal her nationality.
During this whole ordeal, Mordecai walked daily outside the palace gates to look in on how Esther was doing. He became a regular out there, often exchanging messages with Esther through her maidens. One time, he even overheard a plot to kill the king. He told Esther, and she warned Xerxes. The plot was foiled and the traitors were hung.
While Esther was queen, the king's favorite noble was a man named Haman. And somehow Haman conned King Xerxes into ordering everyone to bow when Haman walked by. As a Jew, Mordecai refused, and that made Haman furious. So, in a chilling precursor of the Third Reich, Haman convinced Xerxes that the Jews were a threat and talked the king into an edict ordering the extermination of all the Jews. He even had a gallows constructed to hang Mordecai.
Mordecai wept, wailed, fasted and, as all Jews did, dressed in sackcloth. He sent word to Esther, pleading with her to intercede before the king. Esther resisted, saying it was just too risky. She told Mordecai that anyone who approached the king without being summoned got the death penalty, even the queen. Mordecai shot back, "They'll find out you're a Jew and you'll be not be spared." He then raised the question that has echoed throughout history. He said, "Esther, could it be that you have come to a royal position for such a time as this?"
Esther answered, "Yes," adding, "If I perish, I perish." Fortunately, she devised an extraordinarily clever strategy that engaged both Haman and the king. Haman was exposed and ended up swinging from the gallows he had constructed for Mordecai. Esther's courage and cunning saved her people.
Wow. It's interesting that Esther's moment of truth seems to turn on Mordecai's one rhetorical question, "Could it be that you are where you are for such a time as this?" Esther, what are you going to do with this special moment in time? Though God is never mentioned and no miracles are recorded, you cannot read this book without seeing the hand of God preparing Esther for such a time as this.
In God's infinite love, we have been granted the freedom to make choices. And in God's inscrutable providence, we have been guided and guarded in every step of our lives. So, here we are. Through some mysterious combination of God's purposes and our choices, we are here today. We will never be here again. Everything changes. Even if we return to this room, the circumstances change, the people change and we change. Through providence and choice, we find ourselves at Whitworth University in September of 2008. Could it be that we are here for a high purpose? Could it be that we are here for such a time as this?
I would like to offer seven suggestions from Esther's life to help you answer this question.
- Don't answer too quickly. Life is not like taking your SATs. I think they tell you to trust your first response to multiple-choice questions. That's not good advice when life gets challenging. Like Esther, your first response will probably be to protect your own hide. Augustine used an interesting phrase to describe humanity: curved in on itself. We need to reverse that curvature. It was when Esther curved away from herself and toward her people that she understood God's grand purpose in leading her to the palace. If you are here to educate yourself simply for yourself, you are not here for such a time as this, a time in which the world begs us to curve away from ourselves and toward the deep needs of those around us. God loves that curve. God did not bring us here only to serve ourselves.
- Such a time as this is always a time to risk. I wish I knew what was going through Esther's mind when she said, "If I perish, I perish." Why didn't she say something spiritual like, "Surely, God will take care of me."? It's possible that she was expressing trust in God – thinking God is in control of whatever happens. Or maybe she didn't even think about God. Maybe she figured, "I'm putting myself on the line for my people. If it costs me my life, so be it." Please hear this: When you know the right thing to do, you cannot be intimidated by the consequences. I don't know what Esther was thinking, but she knew the right thing to do, and she was willing to risk her life to do it. Risk is the forerunner of both greatness and failure, but when justice or integrity or righteousness is at stake, then neither greatness nor failure matters. We just act.
- Such a time as this always means risks, but it never means stupid risks. Esther was absolutely brilliant in devising and executing her plan. She found the intersection point between minimum risk and maximum reward. She was bold, but calculating. Some of you do play it too safe. Maybe your perfectionism or your need to be liked has taught you to be cautious. Take some chances, but use all of your wits to strip out any unnecessary elements of the risk. In economic terms, get the highest possible return with the lowest possible standard deviation. Risk holds no inherent value. Its value comes when it is motivated by a noble cause and executed wisely. The risks that led to the current crisis in our nation's financial sector show no signs of nobility or wisdom. Dumb risks are dumb. When our son's best friend applied to an Ivy League school, one of the questions was, "What is the best advice you ever got?" His response was, "When my best friend said, ‘Don't be stupid, Eric.'" Good advice.
- The fourth lesson from story of Esther is that underestimating smart women is always a stupid risk. Enough said.
- There are special moments when greatness comes within our reach. I know, your mom told you that you're always great. Well, you're not. Sometimes you're not even good. But there are those times when ordinary people can do great things. You need to develop a nose for "such a time as this." Those moments occur for teachers, businesspeople, performers, scientists, counselors, writers, politicians, for everyone, even lawyers.
In fact, Spokane's Center for Justice, headed by a Whitworth alum, came into being when a public defender named Jim Sheehan answered the question, "Is this a time for greatness, a time to come to the rescue of Spokane's most unprotected people?"
Not all moments possess equal potential. There are moments for greatness, moments when you sense deeply that you have been called for such a time as this.
On Saturday night, Dale Soden's history of Whitworth made reference to Jena Lee, a 2004 grad who started an AIDS-relief foundation for the band Jars of Clay. Four years ago I got an email from her that said, "Dear Bill, I'm fresh out of college, I have limited experience, I'm 22 years old, and I'm trying to defeat the deadliest disease in the world. Yikes." Last spring I got another email from Jena that said, "Hi, Bill. We are now in 10 African countries: We've brought clean water 256,000 people, representing 25 communities. And we've trained 244 hygiene workers in AIDS prevention.
- Behind all greatness is faithfulness. Esther was in Fat City. But she was in Fat City for a reason. And it was faithfulness that awakened her to the purpose for her royal position. It was faithfulness to her people. It was faithfulness to her husband. It was faithfulness to her sense of duty. And I believe deeply it was Esther's faith in God's faithfulness that prompted her to act. And God was faithful. If you believe that you are here for such a time as this, you must be faithful. You must be faithful to who you are and to the gifts God has given you. You must be faithful to your calling. You must be faithful to your deepest and highest values. And you must have faith in God's faithfulness. God will not leave you languishing in Persia or lavishing in the palace. God's faithfulness rests on his attentiveness, and Jesus said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."
- Such a time as this is almost always a time of challenge. Could it be that God is in your challenges? Could it be that your challenges hold lessons you very much need to learn? Could it be that hiding in your challenges are great opportunities? It was in the challenges that Esther discovered why she was where she was.
You are never alone. Remember how Mary and Joseph lost Jesus? Well, Jesus never lost Mary and Joseph. And he doesn't lose you or me or Esther or King David, who sang to God, "Where can I flee from your presence? If I go to heaven, you're there; if I make my bed in the depths, you're there. No matter where I go, 'your right hand will hold me close.'"
Karl Barth observed that Jesus is with us and for us, and he is with us and for us at Whitworth. Could it be that you are at Whitworth for such a time as this? If you are, may the courage of Esther, the love of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit and the power of the resurrected Christ lift you to great heights and enable you to do great things. Amen.